The online anthropology of Jon Rafman
‘I’m with them, dancing in the shit,’ says Jon Rafman. It’s an expression of resolute solidarity with the virtual revellers who populate his work, from the denizens of Second Life to the ‘furry’ fetishists of 4chan. Rafman is an amateur anthropologist of sorts, a curious flâneur who walks amongst the digital subaltern, pausing to sigh at the scenery of a virtual sublime.
Rafman’s earlier video works found him trudging for miles on end (a performance in itself) along the cheaply rendered lands of Second Life and the virtual pathways of Google Street View. In the former, he plays the part of a rambling voyeur, using as his avatar the ‘Kool-Aid Man’ – a smiling, human-sized pitcher of iced red beverage that is the mascot of the popular US powdered drink mix. Rafman’s version strolls through the servers of Second Life in search of nothing in particular, but discovering all things playful and perverted. Best known for smashing through walls in TV advertisements, which the artist remembers watching as a child, now the very presence of Kool-Aid Man’s rictus grin implies the act of trolling. In the shared fantasy of Second Life’s role-playing world, Kool-Aid Man refuses to play along: ‘It’s like I’m destroying the consistency of their make-believe,’ says Rafman; he’s been banned from many worlds just for being there. Perhaps it’s the allusion to the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’, associated with the 1978 Jonestown cult deaths, which transposes the context from one ‘massively multiplayer’ illusion to another.
Later, darker works, like Mainsqueeze (2014), evoke the death drive of the internet’s collective psyche, comprising a traumatic found-footage montage featuring manifold acts describing what could roughly be termed ‘fetish physics’: squeezing, heaving, rubbing, scrolling, surfing. With a motley cast, including a bodybuilder who can crack a watermelon between his thighs, a gory art-historical Tumblr feed and an unsuspecting crayfish, Mainsqueeze became notorious for introducing a whole new audience to the ‘crush’ fetish. Resembling, at turns, the Wordsworthian sublime and Bataillean excess, the centripetal pull of the screen is made only more palpable by the hypnotic recurrence of a washing machine spinning violently into self-destruction. Rafman’s found-footage films probe at the fringes of our screen-mediated desires, asking what it is we want from technology and, perhaps more urgently, what it produces in us.
Like most of Rafman’s work, Still Life (Betamale) was freely viewable online, acquiring a viral following. As did the Street View project, 9-Eyes (2008–ongoing), which made Rafman’s name after finding an audience ranging from Tumblr users to Daily Telegraph readers. There’s a blurring of auratic boundaries, an intimate, in-browser continuity forming between art object and fetish object, between the dreamy magnetism of Rafman’s videos and all the other weird shit you find yourself compulsively scrolling through at 3am, numbly lit by the glow of your screen.
Fast-forward a couple of years to late 2015, and Rafman has just opened a sprawling survey show at London’s Zabludowicz Collection, the latest in a succession of institutional solo exhibitions. The presentation is friendlier here – the unnerving intimacy of solitary online viewing replaced by the familiar ritual of the public exhibition. Videos are variously and decadently installed: in a filing cabinet, a massage chair, a waterbed. With fellow visitors, you can watch Mainsqueeze in the awkwardly satisfying comfort of a UV-lit ball pool. At a talk accompanying the exhibition, a sold-out audience of fashionable 89-plussers nod in affirmation as Rafman waxes lyrical about memes, romanticism and collapsing real-virtual dichotomies. Evidently, the work speaks to young, post-digital sensibilities, but there’s an irony in the fact that, chances are, most attendees have, at best, a superficial understanding of those seedier corners of the web that Rafman has spent so much time dredging.
There is a sense that Rafman is constantly between places, cultures, generations: the indignant geekery of net culture and the saccharine swank of the vernissage. He’s a generation too old to be a ‘digital native’, but grew up through the highs and lows of web 2.0 utopianism. He reminisces fondly about the golden days of legendary troll-lair Encyclopedia Dramatica (2004–11) and, at 34, tells me he’s ‘on the verge’ of having to leech off a younger generation to remain relevant. Given all this, Rafman is an ideally positioned observer of the transition to digitality over the last few decades, an obsessive witness to the death of so many languages, cultures and formats – from video-game arcades (actual places!) to VR headsets – a catalogue of archaic social practices and the dead technologies that produced them.
An ectoplasm-like substance recurs throughout Rafman’s recent works, the characteristic 3d gloop that figures as a shorthand for the gelatinous excess of virtual materiality. Treacly instantiations of an essentially fluid morphology, not unlike Rafman himself, whose attention-deficit world is reflected in his ever-mutable practice: he says he’s now working on a screenplay. The word ‘ectoplasm’ was coined to denote lumpy reifications of paranormal energy, exuding from the medium communicating between material and immaterial worlds – the entropic waste of transmission, splurging out at the seams. At the London show, its viscid forms are rendered in marble outdoor sculptures flanking the entrance, splattered across the set of Sticky Drama, and the constitutive stuff of the CG-inspired busts that line Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze) (2015), leading up to Rafman’s minotaur, a glutinous gold-leafed biomorph. Sculpture Garden comprises an artificial labyrinth filling an entire room at Zabludowicz, with a much-lauded Oculus Rift virtual reality experience at its centre: it’s a seductive, if somewhat decorative, glimpse into sublimely illusive territory. New digital depths for the voyeur to plumb, no doubt. In Rafman’s words: ‘If you have a shitty life, a shitty job, no lover, why not live in the virtual world?’
Jon Rafman is an artist based in Montreal, Canada. He has recently had solo exhibitions at Zabludowicz Collection, London, UK; Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, Canada; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, USA; Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France; and Saatchi Gallery, London. His work is on show at the 13th Biennale de Lyon, France, until 3 January, and in 2015 was included in the 6th Moscow Biennial, Russia; ‘Digital Conditions’ at Kunstverein Hannover, Germany; ‘The Future of Memory’, Kunsthalle Wien, Austria; and ‘Private Settings: Art After The Internet’, MOMA Warsaw, Poland. His solo exhibition at Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, Germany, opens in February.
First published in Issue 176